Jonah; Mark 1:14-21
The one thing most people remember about Jonah— even non-Christian people— is that hewas swallowed by a fish. And people ask me, “Do you really think he was swallowed by a fish?” But the truth is, as a colleague of mine says, Jonah’s living in a fish’s belly is actually the most believable thing about this story. The book of Jonah is written as satire. It is a story in which Jonah does everything wrong; says all the wrong things; goes the wrong way when he is called by God. Maybe you’ve had days like that too. The whole story is meant to be funny— everyone knows the Ninevites never repented! But, like most satire, it really only rings funny if you don’t agree with Jonah.
Like SNL, or late night TV, this book of the Bible is meant to poke fun at the politics of Jonah’s time; at the cultural understanding of what is right.
You see for more than four hundred years the Israelite people were able to worship at the Temple- God’s house. They believed that with God’s protection, nothing could destroy what they had built. But in 596, it was destroyed. The Babylonians took over the city and exiled the people. And like any of us when life falls apart, the Israelites began to ask why. What had gone wrong? Why was God punishing them? One of the answers they came up with, was that they had to get back to strict adherence to the law. They needed to be more Jewish. And, in fact, they began to argue among themselves as to whether certain people were pure blood enough. They began to exile those who were children of mixed marriages and excluded those in their midst that were not considered part of the same clan. The author of the book of Jonah writes this satire within that context-- a time in which people were being exiled by their own people for not being pure enough. A time when the outsider was the greatest enemy— even when that outsider was an insider.
And so the story begins: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for the wickedness has come up before me.” And Jonah packs his bags, and runs in the opposite direction.
Have you ever run from God’s call on your life?
In the Gospel we just heard Jesus is calling his disciples. And each time the disciples leave everything and follow him. They don’t sit there, admiring his ministry from their boats; they don’t talk it over amongst themselves first; Jesus calls, and they leave their nets; they leave their father sitting in the boat; they leave everything and follow Jesus because the Kingdom of God is so compelling. There are times in my life when I have envied their clarity of call; their decisiveness to follow. But there are other times when I have grieved with them all that they left behind— their parents who wondered what kind of rebel rousing preacher they were following; their friends who questioned their judgment and what kind of trouble this was going to get them into.
Have you ever left everything to follow God’s call?
Jonah does both. He runs from his call, and he also leaves everything by getting on a boat to go the opposite direction of his call. It’s kind of a double negative— “No, God, I’m never going to do what you’re asking me to do; and yet I’ll leave everything I know and love in order to not follow your call.”
It would be insulting if it weren’t so funny— this little guy running far, far, away— as if you can outrun God. But Jonah turns his back on God’s call and leaves everything he knows and loves because there is something he loves more than God or his family or his stuff or his life— and that is his ego— his own self righteousness.
Jonah is often depicted as the prodigal son of prophets- the one who disobeyed; the one was unfaithful; but I think he actually sees God and understands God perfectly. If he thought that God just wanted him to proclaim hell, fire, and brimstone upon Ninevah, he would’ve gone in a heartbeat. Everyone knows how awful the Ninevites are; everyone knows how horribly evil their behavior is. If God wanted someone to condemn them, Jonah would be the first one to sign up.
But Jonah knows God. Jonah knows that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. And Jonah actually says he despises that about God. He doesn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven; he doesn’t want God to tell the Israelites that their racial purity doesn’t make them better than anyone else. Jonah wants to cling to his idea of selfrighteousness and he will do anything to keep it in tact.
So Jonah runs. He gets on a boat, which is not necessary for going to Ninevah, and he heads to Tarshish. And that, of course, is when the part of the story that you may remember about Jonah happens. The wind picks up, the storm begins, and after scaring the sailors to death, Jonah finally admits that it is his God that is causing the problem and tells the sailors to throw him overboard. And here the story gets even funnier. Because these sailors, who are not God followers themselves, do not want to throw him overboard! These pagan sailors, outside of the Israelite faith, are willing to risk their own lives before they will think of throwing their passenger overboard. And when they finally do give up on being able to save the ship, they pray to God, throw Jonah overboard, and, when the storm subsides, they decide to make vows to God right then and there.
Jonah, the Israelite, does not follow God’s laws, but the sailors do. Who is faithful in this story? So far, it’s not the Israelite. So everything has turned out well- the ship is saved; the crew is saved; the storm has stopped; and instead of drowning in the sea, God sends a fish to swallow up Jonah, where he sits for three days until he finally decides to let go of what he wants, and praise God instead.
Have you ever had to give up what you want so that God can do something new in your life?
Jonah ends up going to Ninevah. And he preaches the worst sermon ever. He walks around Ninevah saying as quietly as he can, “In forty days Ninevah will be overthrown.” Not very inspiring, is it? And yet with these seven simple words, on his first day out, the whole city repents. Even the king gets involved and orders a fast not just for all the people, but for all the animals as well. Everyone gets in on the action, and God does what Jonah knew God would do all along, and offers them mercy and life instead of death.
And this is the crux of discipleship. That when we follow Yawheh, when we follow Jesus, we don’t get to cling to our false notions of what will save us. We don’t get to cling to our white privilege because it makes us feel safe. We don’t get to cling to a “good enough” mentality that says as long as we have shelter, food, and access to healthcare it doesn’t matter if others don’t. We don’t get to hold on to the notion that we have it better because we are better; or because we are more educated; or because we did things right. We don’t even get to cling to our fear that if we stand with the poor and marginalized that we will become vulnerable too. Christ calls us to leave all of those things behind and to follow. To dwell in God’s mercy and love, and to recognize that that love extends not just to us, but to everyone. That all of us are created in God’s image, that no one, not even the evil Ninevites, are outside of God’s love and mercy.
Desmond Tutu once said that one day we will wake up and realize that we are all brothers and sisters, we are all family.
That has been God’s message from the beginning. That is Christ’s message as he calls his disciples, as he eats with the most vulnerable in his time— the women who are being trafficked; the men who have been in prison; the homeless and outcasts of society. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is here, now. Leave everything you have known; reprioritize your life around Christ’s love; do not be ashamed; receive God’s mercy for yourself and then go into the world and share that love with all whom you meet.
Who in your life needs you to share the Gospel with them? Who can only hear it from you? How will you find the courage to share your faith so that others can hear the good news that is theirs’ through Christ?